Call me a sucker, but I cried during Heaven Is for Real. Guessing by the occasional sniffles and gasps, at least one of the other eight people in the movie theater did, too. The film is based on a “true story” about four-year-old Colton Burpo, who visits heaven during a high-risk operation on his burst appendix. After the surgery, Colton tells his father, preacher Todd Burpo, about the color of Jesus’s horse and the angels who sang to him. He speaks of meeting the sister who “died in Mommy’s tummy” and a young version of the great-grandfather he never knew. The town of Imperial, Nebraska, is torn by Colton’s story—even Burpo and his wife can’t agree on what to do about their suddenly prophet-like toddler. But the last scene shows the pastor giving a sermon, offering some kind of conclusion. “Was Colton in heaven?” he asks. “Yes, he was. He was in the heaven that God showed him.”
If my tears are any indication, this movie succeeds at inspiring sadness and empathy and comfort. But the spiritual experience it offers is a very specific one: tapping into emotions via the mysterious experience of a very cute, likeable child. The film doesn’t try to convince people that heaven is real; it tries to make them feel as though heaven is real. Call it spirituality porn—faith as a purely visceral experience.
Which is not to say the movie ignores the possibility of doubt or skepticism about what a little kid said he saw in the afterlife. When the pastor first starts talking to Colton about his experiences, he’s unsure of what to think, and that makes for some really, really bad sermons. His church’s board calls him in for a meeting, and he asks why they disagree with his choice to share his son’s story. “I don’t like it,” says a woman named Nancy. She doesn’t want Crossroads Wesleyan Church to become a place for people who only want simple answers, she says—“people who want to take their brains out of their heads and beat them with the Bible. Heaven and hell are concepts that have been used to control people.”
This could have been the most powerful point in the movie. The prospect of an afterlife is most poignant in moments of crisis—when a young child is in the hospital with appendicitis, or when a fire consumes the house of a lonely old man, as it did in the movie. It would be comforting to know for sure—“for real”—that this terror is only temporary, that paradise awaits. It’s not manipulative to explore the question of heaven, or even share what you believe, but it is manipulative to use people’s fear to try to get them to believe, too.
Instead of engaging this point, the plot backtracks. Toward the end of the movie, we see Nancy and the pastor sitting together before her son’s grave—he died in military service at 19. “I’m not really mad at the church, or you, or your son,” she admits. “I’m mad at God.”
In other words, she wants comfort. “Do you think my son is in heaven?” she asks the pastor. “Do you think God loves your son less than he loves mine?” he replies.
This scene provides clarity about the mission of the movie, which is to provide emotional catharsis about life and death. But it also highlights what the film does best: showing the fragility of everyday life. The film’s characters face crisis after crisis—sick kids, bullies on the playground, a looming job loss, kidney stones—and they react in human ways. There are fights in the kitchen and tentative reconciliations, moments of un-gracefulness and ashamed apologies, and tears—many tears. The Burpo family faces a mountain of debt, yet the pastor is fixated on whether there’s truth in Colton’s story. “Don’t you think we need to be talking about this life?” his wife angrily demands.
All of this makes the movie seem emotionally authentic, even if it’s not theologically robust. On balance, that’s not a bad thing—it’s okay to seek comfort, get angry, be scared. Just as some people like scrolling through artisanal food pictures on Instagram, some people will enjoy the wholesome emotional rollercoaster of Heaven Is For Real.
That doesn’t mean the movie is any less exploitative, though. If I had to make a non-cynical guess about why the real-life Todd Burpo wrote a book about his son and turned it into a movie, I would say he probably saw it as a form of testifying. He believes God revealed something to his son, and his son revealed that to the world. He probably thought the story would bring inspiration and comfort to others, and judging by the three consecutive years the book has spent on The New York Times bestseller list, he was probably right.
But there’s an important difference between testifying to your beliefs and hawking comfort to others. At one point in the movie, a journalist asks to interview Colton, talking to him about what heaven looks like while he plays with his toys. She follows him over to the swing set in the Burpos’ yard, where he asks her, “They don’t believe me, do they?” She makes a little “oho” noise, which I personally recognize as the “this-is-going-to-make-a-fabulous-quote” sound. She knew this little boy would make a good story, so she tells it. The Burpos—and their publisher, Thomas Nelson, and their movie company, Sony Pictures—knew that people are desperate to know whether heaven is “for real.” So that’s how they told Colton’s story: The movie pretends to offer truth, but it actually sells lost souls a hit of existential ease.